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Friday Soccer Blogging: The Sublime Fairness of the World Cup Draw

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When the draw for the World Cup finals happened, there was much hilarious moaning in England. Since FIFA hates England, the English received the most difficult group imaginable. England FA chairman Greg Dyke was filmed making a cut throat gesture at the time of the draw (which of course has caused controversy).

England is in Group D with Italy, Uruguay, and Costa Rica.  Group B includes Spain, the Netherlands, Chile, and Australia.  Group G, Germany, the USA, Portugal, and Ghana. B has the two finalists from 2010. Each of the four sides in G made the knock out rounds in 2010. From the perspective of a USMNT supporter, the range of success I’m hoping for is from 0-6 points, with 2-4 most likely. I’ll make more robust foolish predictions closer to the tournament itself, but here in December I’m thinking a loss against Germany (the 4-3 home friendly win in June regardless), and one win plus one draw against Portugal and Ghana.

On Wednesday, The Guardian published something I’ve wanted to do: it analysed the strength of each group, using FIFA ranking points as the quantitative measure. Of the 32 sides, the USA has the third most difficult schedule (Australia and Ghana are more difficult by their measures), England’s is 10th. Group G is the most difficult, with England’s Group D third. So the English did have some legitimate whinging, but from the perspective of an American, get over it.

In terms of the difficulty of each match, the Spain v Netherlands match is measured the most impressive. But, “It’s no surprise that Spain versus the Netherlands is the strongest individual match in the group stages, but USA have two matches in the top seven and England have two in the top 10.”

If the goal of seeding teams is to ensure roughly equal competition across all the groups, there should not be appreciable qualitative distinctions in strength. FIFA does not operate that way, of course. The top eight were seeded, ensuring they’d be kept apart, but then the remaining “pots” were based on geography. While the Guardian didn’t illustrate the distribution, I’ve done that here:

The four “weakest” groups are all relatively equal, but then there’s a sharp, progressive increase in competitive strength from C (Columbia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan), D (Italy, England, Uruguay, Costa Rica), B (Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia) and then America’s Group G.  58 points separate the bottom four groups, while 196 between the toughest and the 5th toughest.

This is how we get some arguably unfair results. The English have complained about France (because it’s tradition) being placed in the relatively easy Group E even though they barely qualified for the tournament, having to win by three clear goals in the second leg against the Ukraine after losing in the opener 2-0. Mexico were stupendously lucky to qualify, as we know, on a stoppage time American goal against Panama in the final match of the CONCACAF hexagonal.

How did the Americans benefit from this? They’re placed in a group 196 points more difficult than Mexico’s Group A (or depending on how one measures this, 22% more difficult), and the US has the third most difficult schedule, while El Tri the 21st. The geographic distribution of teams into groups isn’t a matter of fairness, but rather it’s a matter of ensuring as many European sides get into the knockout rounds as possible.

Of course, if the US does manage to progress from its group, it will arguably be the best performance in a World Cup finals since finishing third in 1930 (or perhaps 8th in 2002).

Relatedly, Jurgen Klinsmann has signed a four year extension as national team manager. I approve.

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